Floor Procedure 101: The Unanimous Consent Request
We’re just ten days away from living in a Trump America, which is either fills people with glee or gives people The Fear. Without a doubt, the biggest question on the new administration's first move surrounds the fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
There’s a high likelihood that the ACA won’t live to see the cherry blossoms on the Tidal Basin this spring, but the reality is parts of this law may hang around for a bit longer. One does not simply unwind 2,700 pages of statute, 13,000 pages of rules and regulation and then leave millions of Americans without health insurance. There's no way the GOP is going to create their own PR crisis and leave millions without some kind of coverage. You may loathe the ACA, but that's the political reality of repeal.
President-elect Trump’s already demanding a quick death to the ACA.
Mr. Trump appeared to be unclear both about the timing of already scheduled votes in Congress and about the difficulty of his demand — a repeal vote 'probably some time next week' and a replacement 'very quickly or simultaneously, very shortly thereafter.' (Source)
What’s frustrating is some in the press and general public, along with our Dear Future Leader, haven't thought of the politics, nor have they considered the rules on how the House and Senate pass bills or repeal laws.
Well, we can learn a few lessons from his ignorance. First, the President doesn’t get to dictate the floor schedule of the House or Senate. The President can ask for a vote or ask the chamber to stay in session, but that’s up to the Speaker/Minority Leader in the House and the Majority/Minority Leaders in the Senate. So, demand all you want, Sir. You probably won’t get what you want.
Be sure you put that in your long-term knowledge compartment, Gentle Reader. You’ll look brilliant among your friends and family with that small bit of fact.
This leads to a second, more critical point: The House and Senate are deliberately slow bodies. In general, Congress is not a reactionary, and does not bow to the whims of the executive office. That’s the way the Founders wanted it. In fact, the Constitution allows both chambers to establish their own rules (Article I, Section 5) to govern themselves. Often, those rules are set up to protect the minority party.
Come with me now as we break through the bonds of your earthly confinement. Here in this… Blog of Solitude… we shall discuss the answers of Congress together.
Unanimous Consent - We All Agree!
The unanimous consent request in both chambers is a critical cog in the congressional machine.
Let’s say the post office in your town is a nameless, faceless building. But, your town had a war hero from World War II who received the Medal of Honor. Some folks in your town want to honor him, and ask your congressman to rename the building the Sgt. Cecil L. Muller Post Office.
Your congressman agrees, and then writes a short bill that, quite simply, renames the post office. It’s a non-controversial bill. There are no amendments attached to it, and impacts just the people in your home town.
After going through the committee process, the bill reaches the House floor and your congressman will get a chance to speak asking his colleagues to support it.
On bills like this, the House agrees to suspend the rules by unanimous consent, essentially ignoring all the rules that govern the chamber. This means a member can’t raise a point of order against a bill. The House usually schedules three or four suspension votes in a row as the first order of business for the week, usually in the early evening. This allows a member to miss meaningless votes if his/her flight is delayed, or he/she is unable to get back to Washington for a personal reason.
Suspension bills, like our post office bill, almost always pass without anyone voting against them. It’s about as simple and harmless as a bill can be.
In the Senate, there are two ways a bill (or nomination or treaty) is brought to the floor for consideration:
- The Senate, at the request of the majority leader, grants unanimous consent to take up the bill.
- The Senate agrees to the majority leader’s motion to proceed to consider it.
The second way isn’t used as much, because senators can debate the motion to proceed. That’s when a Senator can filibuster the motion to proceed. But, we’ll get to that in future posts.
Let's stick with our post office example. Your senator would write a bill renaming the post office, and then once it was ready for consideration, the senator would work to get a unanimous consent (or UC if you want to speak like a staffer) from the majority and minority leader.
Late in the day, or even at night, the majority and minority leaders take care of bills like our post office bill. One asks unanimous consent that S. 1234 be considered and passed. The other agrees, there are no objects and boom! Your town’s post office gets a new name.
You can actually read this procedure here: Special Warfare Operator Master Chief Petty Officer (Seal) Louis ‘Lou’ J. Langlais Post Office Building.
In the bottom left corner, you see Mr. Boozman asking unanimous consent for calendar numbers 675 through 683. Since there was no objection, all these post offices received new names.
In the Senate, there was a Hotline for staff to answer. (Note: The phone system existed when I was there. I believe it's all via email now.) It alerted everyone to upcoming votes. Often, the recording on the other end let us know a bill was coming to the floor under a UC request, and if our boss objected, to let the majority/minority leader know. If a single senator objected, the unanimous consent request was over, no matter how mundane the bill.
It’s similar in the House. A member often will ask unanimous consent a bill be passed, but if a member objects, the request fails. Often, the Speaker won’t call on members asking for a UC unless it’s already been agreed to. Members do have the right to ‘request the Yeas and Nays’ if the unanimous consent gets an objection. Then, the House enters into a 15 minute roll call vote.
Here are a few examples of suspension votes in the House: Combat-Injured Veterans Tax Fairness Act of 2016
I respect the President-elect's wish to move quickly on his campaign promises, and I imagine many across the country want to see action on the ACA or other laws. But, the system we have works as it should: to temper the excitement of the populous. That might frustrate the Trump Administration, but Congress isn't a fast food drive-thru. It must operate thoughtfully, to protect citizens from a reactionary, passionate executive branch.
How Measures Are Brought to the House Floor: A Brief Introduction. Christopher M. Davis, Analyst on Congress and the Legislative Process. Congressional Research Service. September 16, 2015
How Measures Are Brought to the Senate Floor: A Brief Introduction. Christopher M. Davis, Analyst on Congress and the Legislative Process. Congressional Research Service. August 5, 2015.
**Please note: I also used my own knowledge, so I may have forgot a step or two. In general, this is how a UC agreement works.**